Though in theory holidays are a time of celebration, it’s a universally accepted fact that in reality they can also be quite stressful. The most common and oft-cited holiday stress is the typical family reunion riddled with volatile emotions and difficult relationships. For us Jews, however, holiday stress can be less soulful and simply more practical.
Take this year, for example. All of the festive days are on working days – and not even on a Monday or Friday, making for a long weekend. Nope, they’re all smack dab in the middle of the week – Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If one decides to take the days off, there’s the juggling of schedules, switching of working days, or even using up 7 of your precious vacation days. We at the IJN are a good example: losing Tuesday and Wednesday, when we normally go to press on Wednesday night… Take my word for it, this requires lots of pre-thinking and organizing.
Even if you decide that you’re unable to completely take off work, but still want to participate, there’s the cooking of meals, inviting of guests, and this crammed into…well, when exactly? The one hour after work and before your guests arrive?
But when all is said and done, once you’ve taken the day off, or sat down for that holiday meal, there’s something even more enjoyable about it exactly because it’s in the middle of the week. For me, this means that at 2 p.m., while I would normally zone out in front of a computer, I can spend the afternoon with a book.
This Sukkot I found myself reading Forever My Jerusalem by Puah Shteiner, an absorbing true story of the siege of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1948. While the climax of the story come with the battle and surrender of the Old City, what drew me in were the descriptions of Old City life prior to the State of Israel. The author, who was a young girl during the war of independence, paints a picture of simple stone one-room apartments, narrow dusty alleyways, an extremely narrow Kotel, but amidst all this, the grandeur of the Churva synagogue, situated in the middle of the Jewish Quarter. True, the Jewish Quarter is now built up and inhabited as never before, but reading Shteiner’s account, one wishes time travel were possible. How many of you have walked or driven down the long, asphalt road just along the city walls, down to Dung Gate? Open up the book and you’ll find a flecked black and white photo of the same street, only in this incarnation it’s a steep flight of stone stairs, literally hugging the city wall. How would it feel, descending to the Kotel on the “Stepped Street”, as it was called?
The book is filled with powerful moments, forcing the reader to recall a time where there was no State of Israel, when the Jewish people had just survived the Holocaust and was struggling to redefine itself as a nation. There’s the young Hagana soldier practically yelling at the residents, holed up in a shelter, that no longer must Jews simply follow orders, that we now have an army and can fight back. And there’s the skeptical, bitter responses of those that have lived too long, and don’t believe that what this soldier says is possible.
The Old City residents, finally leaving when terms of surrender have been negotiated, crush each other trying to exit Zion Gate. So frightened are they for their lives that what they feel when leaving their home is relief.
There are the Old City refugees, settled in Katamon and having to survive by stealing from abandoned Arab homes. And while the author and her family take only what’s necessary, others believe that Israel conquered the neighborhood, and therefore they – refugees who have just lost their homes and possessions – deserve to loot at will.
And what happened to those Jews – Jews who in their lives had never left the Old City’s walls – who instead of leaving the Old City at the surrender decided to stay and pledge their loyalty to Jordan?
This is a book that tells a bitter, painful story, and does not shy from aspects or facts that are less than heroic. Told from a child’s perspective it carries the kind of truthful simplicity that only children can convey. It’s a highly engaging, educational read recommended for anyone interested in modern Israeli history.
Outside the wind is blowing, both water and bright orange leaves are raining; this isn’t good news for those planning on eating in the sukkah tonight, but as for me, this kind of weather makes me look forward to the second days and curling up with a new read.